Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Little progress today

Looking at word count, I had very little progress today. That was because I spent most of my writing time going over the same little problem a few times and writing the solution three times until I got it. The end result is a single short graf that is a good tentative solution, but it took awhile to get it done.

The problem was really one of closure on an episode before transitioning to the next one. I have lots of these in my draft I think, where I create a scene with some tension in it but I don't quite do anything with it. So I have to stop and ask myself what I'm trying to get at and what would the characters think about and do in this situation.

At this point, I'm about halfway through my Chapter One. I had the thought yesterday that maybe I could finish one chapter per week, but it's not going that way right now. Maybe if I work up my endurance to more than an hour.

I also got a late and crabby start today. Overslept and I'm very sore and fatigued from playing basketball last night and not sleeping well.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Building the habit--rewrite, day 2

Not great progress today, but improved progress, so I'm satisfied. It's like starting a workout routine after many months on the couch. You wish you could run five miles at the same pace you used to do it back before you let things slip, but it takes time to build up to that distance and to build up to that speed.

I was able to write for a little longer today with a little more of the feeling that I was getting in the groove. Nothing to get excited about, but a little better.

Specifically, I worked for an hour, the same as yesterday. But less time was spent reading through and fine tuning existing material and more time was spent creating new material. 600 words today as opposed to 200 words yesterday.

(I know from the drafting stage that I write about 1000 words longhand. I don't know on the computer. But assuming the same, that figures to about 35-40 minutes of "writing" today vs. diddling around.)

Some of it was not necessarily going deeper into the story. It was just adding more detail at the same level. But I could feel a couple moments where I was adding a detail that told us more about the interior reality of the character and his longing and motivation.

Closer. Closer. The main thing is to make it a habit and trust that something good will emerge out of it over the long term. You have to DO it one day at a time without JUDGING the product of any single day.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Need a new mantra

I've written before about how my mantra during the drafting stage was "Just add sentences" and how I needed something similarly focused and practical to focus my attention during the rewrite.

I'm coming up with some ideas, though they don't quite catch the spirit of practicality.

One is "Just go deeper."

That does capture something essential and important, but it's abstract and metaphorical. It doesn't tell me what to physically do with myself when I'm stuck and I can't think my way to the next step.

Another is "Just add details."

That is a lot more practical but not quite enough so. "Adding sentences" implies a place that is self-evident. You add sentences at the end of where you wrote last. But where do I add details? The problem is less linear, more three dimensional and not at all self evident.

(Although a reasonable inference might be, "Just add details to the scene following the place you reviewed last.")

Besides that, it may not be critical enough. While just adding sentences--without critical regard to their meaning or utility--makes sense to get a shy novice through a first draft, the rewrite feels like it needs more deliberation. What I really want to do is add details that build depth to the characters, complexity to the plot and weight to the theme.

But insisting on that condition is probably the wrong attitude. It's OK to be wanting that, but the point of the my first draft mantra was to keep me working even it if wasn't useful work, and I probably need the same kind of crutch still. It's a creative process. I need to keep the creative habit going even if it's off base.

Just add details (that preferably add depth etc. but if not add them anyway.)

I'm glad baseball is over--I need the sleep

Part of what's been holding me back is physical complaints, and part of it has been time pressures. Both of those problems have been compounded by lack of sleep.

Which in recent weeks has been mostly the fault of major league baseball starting their games so late. I'm glad the Red Sox won the World Series last night, and I'm glad they swept, so I can back to a normal sleep schedule.

Starting the rewrite finally

During last week and over the weekend I came to the decision that I needed to start the rewrite, even though I don't know what I'm doing, and today I started.

I put in about one hour of work first thing after my coffee. I opened the first chapter, save a fresh copy of it and just started going through it line by line. Most of the time I was making sentence-level adjustments, and I did that knowing that it's way too early to worry about that kind of revision, but it seemed like the only way to get started and find my way into it. One danger is the sense of contentment that method might bring. I need to find the big picture problems, and sentence-level editing might actually cause me to miss them.

In any case, I found at least one biggER picture problem, if not necessarily the kind of problem I ought to be focusing on. But the decision I've come to is that what I ought to be focusing on is an unknown. I'm not smart or experienced enough to make the kind of evaluation and plan the work accordingly. And since I don't know what I ought to do, the only thing to do is just to go forward blindly.

Not absolutely blindly--I do have some critical faculties and have done some thinking. But I'm moving forward with a lot less of a plan than I expected.

Another way of thinking about it that is finally dawning on me is that I'm in a totally unfamiliar process right now. If you imagine starting the draft of a book and how that feels like wading out from the shore into a vast expanse . . . this is like that except it's with the sense of never having tried before and never having seen the water before and not knowing what wading or swimming or treading water even are.

Another comparison . . . you know how when you're a teenager first getting that urge to be a writer? (Usually a poet.) And you open up your school notebook to a blank page with a pen in your hand. What is unique about that moment I think is that it's a moment when you have a tremendous creative urge but it's not yet connected to writing itself--to the knowledge of what writing is or the sense that you could be a writer. It's like the blank page is seducing you but you don't know know enough about sex to recognize what it is. I remember wanting just to move the pen over the paper and create images with words, but I didn't have any sense that there was such a thing as writing and writers.

Starting this rewrite feels like that moment. When I started the first draft, I didn't know I could finish it, but I at least knew what I was embarking on and that I was attempting to use skills that I had been honing. With the rewrite, it's almost like I don't know what that job actually is. I don't know what it entails or what it looks like or feels like. I don't know that anyone has actually done it before. It's an unarticulated part of the process.

So I came to about the sixth page or so to a point where the characters move from one space to another and it was clumsy. No transition. No rationale. No reason for them to do that. So I stopped, put several hard returns in the text to create some space, and started writing. I just wrote what my character was thinking and feeling and deciding. I ended up adding . . . not so much. A couple hundred words. But it was created from a fuller understanding of the character than I had at the end of the first draft. And it starts to commit the story to a more dramatic and active relationship between the characters.

After writing that new graf, I paused. An hour was up. Work beckoned. I decided to pause there for the day. I didn't get a lot done, but I learned a lot and I got started. I'll pick up in the same place tomorrow and hopefully build up my stamina as well as my understanding of what I'm doing.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rewriting vs revising vs editing

I'm learning something hard . . . The draft isn't there for me to fix. The draft is there to give hints about what I'm supposed to write next.

Let me share a little bit of my first draft to illustrate.

The children in sixth grade at Brookview sensed how fast they were growing up and that their lives were propelling forward into new territory. They had been cocooned together for seven years or—in the case of the new kids who had arrived in first grade—six years, and they were winding up their last weeks of elementary school. Next was coming the junior high school with all of its academic and social unknowns, with many more kids, including kids from some of the schools where they were all snobs, where there would be older kids who they didn’t know, where they would have to go to different rooms and corridors for each class, where they would have gym instead of P.E. and they would have to wear special gym clothes for that and have to shower afterward. It was the last soccer season and last baseball season when they just signed up for it—hereafter they would have to try out for school teams and only the kids who were fast and skilled would get to play. After this year there would be school dances and even parties they had heard about through an older brother where everyone drank J.D. and people made out.

I opened this chapter this morning to think about rewriting, and it was very discouraging, because I remember this intro being colorful and engaging. But it's obviously barf, and presumably there's a lot more of that in the rest of my first draft.

The first thing I wanted to do was to start editing. If you go through one sentence at a time, you'll see lots of opportunities to clean it up. The first sentence is awkward and clumsy, and I could easily rewrite it for more clarity and impact. The second sentence has that problem plus the problem of having extra detail that is probably unnecessary. I could make the tough choice to chop that out. The next three sentences each start with weak verbs and abstract subjects.

And so on, and before long what I'm actually doing is more like editing the book at the sentence level. But what this paragraph--and probably the whole chapter--really needs is a rewrite. And I don't mean a sentence-by-sentence rewrite.

I mean I need to look at it, decide what the real story buried underneath it is--the powerful metaphor, the meaningful plot points, the honest behaviors of the character--and pull those out and write the chapter again to emphasize all that. Instead of trying to make this paragraph flow better, I need to treat this paragraph as a big clue to what the story is really trying to say and then write that down.

That distinction is going to be tough to remember. The temptation as I'm reading through will be to just stop and fix each individual sentence trying to find the right word. But I'm not to the point yet where I should struggle to find the right word. I'm still trying to find out who my characters really are and what they want and what they're going to do to surprise one another.

So all those exercises I'm doing while I have the draft put away really serve two important purposes. One, they help me figure out more about my character and story. Two, I'm trying to get the important stuff established so well in my mind that the urge to tell the real story swamps any urge to line edit the draft on the page. I have to get something into my head more powerful and important than the words currently on the page.

To put it another way, the draft isn't there for me to fix. The draft is there to give hints about what I'm supposed to write next.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Jobs that suck up writing energy

Probably the key practical question for writers is how to support the writing. Usually we mean financial support--what kind of employment is going to allow me to pay the bills and work on this book?

But other kinds of support are important, obviously--mental and spiritual, for example.

If you read advice from writers a lot like I do, you'll see advice to get yourself a day job totally separate from the writing life. The idea is to make sure that the energy you spend on your day job isn't the energy you'll need to work on your book--imaginative energy generally and concentrated writing time specifically.

So the teaching profession is right out, because it presumably sucks up the creative juices. Journalism too. And marketing, advertising copywriter, radio jingle composer . . . what else? Court reporter. Soapbox prophet. Writing love letters for illiterate peasants at sidewalk cafe table in Bogata.

I'm breaking this rule myself, right now, working as a professional writer. I generally don't go by any hard and fast rules--everyone has to take their own path--but this is definitely something I worry about. Is part of the reason I'm having trouble turning my attention to the book at 9 a.m. because my subconscious is working on other writing I have to do later in the day?

Possibly, but on the other hand, the previous job I had--salaried, lots of hours, lots to manage, not a writing job exactly though of course with lots of writing needed to create the work product--didn't leave me any kind of energy, writing energy or otherwise. It sucked up all the spiritual and emotional and physical energy in a way my current job does not.

I'm curious to know what jobs other people find are most and least supportive of their writing, financially and otherwise.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Letting it stew

Work on my novel appears to have stopped completely. That's partly because I was sick, partly because I've been busy. But I know the real reason is fear and boredom. As I've written before, paraphrasing Jane Smiley, the fear and boredom are really a symptoms of something else.

So even though work has stopped, I'm trying to take comfort from the theory that it's continuing to stew--that I'm mulling it over and figuring out what the story can be and what it's problems are.

I'm pretty sure that my subconscious continues to work away at it, though you can never really be sure about that, can you? You just get the occassional hint when something pops through to the consciousness, and I'm getting those. Yesterday I had a moment when I thought, "Oh, what if my character . . . . "

The biggest danger is not respecting the work that it takes and making lame excuses. I know I sound like I'm in that space, but I don't feel like I am. So I'm not worrying about it right now.

Everyone's process is different. For me, right now I'm feeling like if I make progress on other parts of my life--shaping my professional responsibilities so that I can take advantage of the writing impulse when the opportunity comes--then that's a kind of necessary progress too.

Hopefully more honest work to report on about my novel soon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Taking some sick days

I think maybe I have the flu. I thought it was a cold, but I ache plenty too. Anyway it's keeping me from working on much of anything. I've been sleeping in and then not doing much concentrating all day--on the novel or anything else I'm responsible for.

I'm giving myself permission to take the time off without worrying about it. That's a . . . I was going to say "luxury" that I didn't have in my previous job. But the fact that we think of sick days as luxuries is part of what is wrong with the modern world. They're necessities, and like many people I didn't use to do what was necessary when I was sick. I worked through it usually and when I did take a day I spent most of the day in bed on my cellphone trying to manage the work that I couldn't be present for.

For me, working on a novel involves a different orientation toward the world, this saner attitude on sick days being one example. Working on a novel is touching my life in more than just the intellectual work I do. I think differently about relationships, health, community, diet, consumption, financial needs . . . the whole arrangement has changed my view on what I really need. (Basically, a lot less.)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Cube exercise

Struggling against a cold today. Or allergies. At this point it's hard to tell anymore.

Through the fog I worked on something called the cube exercise. I found it in the Laurie Henry book but you can find other examples of it there. Basically, you pick any single aspect of your story--a character, a chapter, an event, a theme--and do some writing on each of these six questions representing six sides of an issue.

  1. Describe: Think about your topic in terms of the five senses. What does it look like? What color is it? What does it smell, taste, sound, or feel like?
  2. Compare: What is your topic similar to? What is its exact opposite?
  3. Associate: What does your topic remind you of? When you close your eyes and think about your topic, what pops into your head?
  4. Analyze: Think about the parts of your topic and how they work together. Tell what causes your topic, how it emerges/emerged, what causes or influences it, and how it can be categorized or grouped.
  5. Apply: What can you do with your topic? How can your subject be used productively? What good does your subject do anyone?
  6. Argue: Take a stand for or against your subject - or both! Think of as many reasons, logical or silly, that you might have for favoring or opposing your subject.
Depending on what kind of aspect you picked, some of these questions make more obvious sense than others. I was working on a character, so you can imagine that "applying" my character isn't immediate obvious. As an exercise, though, it can be worth trying to think in those terms.

Because I was feeling sick and slow moving, I decided to practice this by using a minor character this morning. Tomorrow I intend to try it with my main character.

Each day I feel like I understand things a little better. Hopefully soon I'll feel like I understand them well enough to switch on the creative impulse again and launch into the rewrite.